Gods, Games, and Glory: The Mythopoetics of Sports

Originally printed in the July - August 2004 issue of Quest magazine.
Citation:Cousineau, Phil. "Gods, Games, and Glory: The Mythopoetics of Sports." Quest  92.4 (JULY - AUGUST 2004):140-143

By Phil Cousineau

"In the beginning," writes Rudolph Brasch in How Did Sports Begin? "[sport] was a religious cult and a preparation for life. Its roots were in man's desire to gain victory over foes seen and unseen, to influence the forces of nature, and to promote fertility among his crops and cattle."

Once these primary needs were met, Brasch continues, the exhilaration of early sporting activities was carried on in the form of free play or games. What began as essential training for hunting or warfare became mere diversion or amusement, though in its own unique way sport is just as essential to our well-being as the original need to feed or protect ourselves.

"In our time millions of people," Brasch writes, "whether spectators or participants, amateurs or professionals, are carried away by the sport they love from the cares of their daily toil, their anxieties and frustrations, to a world of relaxation and emulation, excitement and thrill." Thus sports are not an avoidance of life but an embrace of it in all its complexities, a conscious transformation of the battle of life into the game of life.

The ancient Greeks described competition as the fruit of a pivotal moment in prehistory. The biographer Plutarch chronicled the situation this way: "In the ruthless times before athletics, it appears that at that time there were men who, for deftness of hand, speed of legs, and strength of muscles, transcended normal human nature and were tireless. They never used their physical capacities to do good or to help others, but reveled in their own brutal arrogance and enjoyed exploiting their strength to commit savage, ferocious deeds, conquering, ill-treating, and murdering whosoever fell into their hands."

"It is Theseus and Herakles," writes Roberto Calasso, citing Plutarch, "who first used force to a different end than that of merely crushing their opponents. They become 'athletes on behalf of men.' And, rather than strength itself, what they care about is the art of applying it: 'Theseus invented the art of wrestling, and later teaching of the sport took the basic moves from him. Before Theseus, it was merely a question of height and brute force.'"

The Western world since the fall of the Roman Empire has been marked by a Manichaean suspicion of the physical. The ideal education has been intellectual and spiritual, with only begrudging attention given to the balance of mind, body, and soul that the ancient Greeks sought. It was not until the work of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century philosopher-poets like Friedrich von Schiller and Greek scholar Thomas Arnold of Rugby that play and games once again earned their rightful place in the well-rounded education. Schiller wrote incisively about art, beauty, freedom, and spirit—the thread that ties them together being the beauty born in play. For Schiller, play is the link between the inner world of reverie and the outer world of concrete things. Arnold was the first educator in modern times to advocate games as an indispensable part of school life. Coubertin made the pilgrimage to the Rugby school, in England, and later on in life praised Arnold for creating the ideal athletic atmosphere for young students.

"Nobility of spirit is the grace—or ability—to play," writes Joseph Campbell in The Masks of God, "whether in heaven or on earth. And this, I take it, this noblesse oblige, which has always been the quality of aristocracy, was precisely the virtue (arete) of the Greek poets, artists, and philosophers, for whom the gods were true as poetry is true."

Play is noble, spirited, graceful, and virtuous: it is through play's "as if" leap of faith that we enter another world and real-ize ecstatic possibilities for ourselves we wouldn't discover otherwise. The nature of that other world is at once nostalgic, as suggested by all the references to "home" in sports, and idealistic, as revealed in the innocent longing for sheer fun, which inexplicably has the power to renew our spirits, even to "recreate" us. The mythopoetics of sports declare that we can best comprehend the world through awe and wonder, a viewpoint possible only with a play-full attitude towards life.

"Young men are testosterone machines," Joseph Campbell once told me emphatically. "You have to challenge all the energy or they'll burn your cities down. I don't know what I would have done without athletics when I was a young man. It gave me discipline for a lifetime. I still swim forty-four laps a day, meditating on a different tarot card during each lap."

Campbell paused, as if perusing a mental scrapbook of articles from his illustrious track career. Then he smiled and added, "I still think of my running career every time I lecture." His lectures were "the equivalent of a half-mile race, and boy, I'll tell you, they're both tough. Life's tough. Running taught me how to pace myself in everything I've done in my life. It takes real guts to make your way through this world. The discipline you learn in sports can give you that."

Why does so much emotion surface when we recall the races of our youth? Why do we love the struggle? Is it pathological, as some psychologists insist, or do great athletes know something the rest of us have forgotten—or rejected?

"Whenever their lives were set aflame," writes Roberto Calasso, "through desire or suffering, or even reflection, the Homeric heroes knew that a god was at work."

THE ROOTS OF OUR AGONY AND ECSTASY

Leave it to a poet—the ancient Greek Pindar—to say, "The word outlives the deed." Though literature tends to outlive the people who write it, if we look close enough we can still see the deeds living inside the histories of the words. So, also the often inexplicably powerful response we feel in the heat of competition, whether as athletes or spectators, is at least partially expressed in the compacted meaning of the words we use to describe the athletic experience.

Consider the marvels of the puzzle-box of words used in the wide world of sports—a word that derives from the Latin des-porto, meaning "carry away." Of course, getting "carried away" is the thing our parents and teachers said we shouldn't do. Despite their warnings, most of us indeed play or watch sports to get carried away as often as possible from the workaday life. We love to lose ourselves, at least temporarily, and it is this sense of "transport," a product of physical exertion, that rejuvenates athletes.

Strictly speaking, an athlete is someone who competes for a prize in public games. Our word athlete comes from the Greek athlon, meaning a prize won in a game. The English word game derives from a wonderful old Danish word gammen, which refers to mirth or merriment. The prize can also be won in a contest, which in Greek was agon, the root of our word agony. To train or compete is agony; yet only agony leads to ecstasy. Today many athletes boast "No pain, no gain"—and believe they invented the idea. But as early as the fourth century B.C.E., at least one spectator in the gymnasium was so in awe of the athletes' ability to endure that he wrote, "In their pain is their fame."

The game is worth the pain because the ecstasy is worth the agony. If you go deep enough into agony you find the real meaning of ecstasy, from the Greek exstasis, which denotes "being beside yourself"—what we now call being "in the zone," "in the bubble," or "in the flow." The real contest is a test of our spirit, and if played seriously it leads us to a place beyond our ordinary selves. The ecstatic side of sports is above and beyond the advertised prize of the contest; it offers the athlete a momentary experience of the rapturous and dramatic.

The Greeks were acutely aware of these connections. Their word for "actor" was agonistes, which was also the word for "competitor." To them, athlete and actor were kindred spirits. Each played in a drama in which occurred an unfolding of fate or destiny, a symbolic life and death. There's good reason why sports are called a past-time—they are supposed to take us outside and beyond ourselves, lift us up so we transcend everyday life.

"It's that shudder out of time," writes adventurer-poet Diane Ackerman in Deep Play, "the central moment in so many sports, that one often feels, and perhaps becomes addicted to, while doing something dangerous . . . the fear of leaning into nothingness."

Risking everything by training hard for years, then exposing themselves to possible defeat, even humiliation, yet achieving some form of distinction is still what separates the Olympic athlete from all others. This is the mysterious source of joy for them—and often for us.

TO STRIVE, TO SEEK, AND NOT TO YIELD

As the Irish are fond of saying, memory is a merciful editor. Swiss psychologist C. G. Jung went so far as to say that every attempt at turning memory into narrative is mythological. Such is the case with one of my favorite stories from ancient times, the tale of Glaucus of Carystus, in Euboea, the Olympic boxing victor in 520 B. C. E.

The legend has it that young Glaucus was the son of a farmer. One day while Glaucus was working in the field, the plowshare came loose from the plow. Not having any tools nearby, Glaucus knocked it back into its socket with his stonehard bare fist, a colossal feat his father happened to notice.

Encouraged by his father, Glaucus went to Olympia and won his first few bouts—but also lost a few teeth and a lot of blood. By the last match he was exhausted and seriously wounded. It is said that the spectators and his trainer expected him at any point to lift his forefinger in the traditional gesture of surrender. But at the moment of truth—when the goddess of victory, Nike, or the god of sacred time, Kairos, were known to appear Glaucus's father (or, in one account, his trainer) suddenly bellowed, "My boy, remember the plowshare!"

Glaucus seized the moment and dug down deep within himself for one last surge of strength and courage. He rose up and walloped his rival on the head as hard as he had hit the plowshare—and the contest was over.

What are we to make out of such a tale?

As with many Olympic stories, both ancient and modern, the tale of Glaucus is instructive on many levels. It has survived the exigencies of time not because it glamorizes brutality but because it mythologizes—makes a sacred story out of—the otherwise ineffable way human beings discover their secret strength in a moment of truth.

Strength, however, isn't always corporeal; sometimes it is spiritual, as echoed in the words of Mohandas Gandhi: "Strength does not come from physical strength. It comes from an indomitable will."

The story of Jesse Owens in the 1936 Berlin Games has become enshrined as one of our modern sports myths, an inspirational story close to my own heart.

The 1936 Berlin Olympics were part of Hitler's grandiose plan to prove to the world the superiority of the "Aryan" people. But Jesse Owens and a handful of other foreign athletes upstaged his plans. Owens won the hearts of his teammates but also the affection of the Germa crowd by winning gold medals in the 100-meter dash, the 200-meter dash, the 400-meter relay, and the long jump. This feat made him the first American in the annals of Olympic history to win four golds in one Olympiad. That's the overstory. The understory, the stuff of myth, is how he won the gold in the long jump—which, as he later said, made the other victories possible.

Because he was the world-record holder at 26 feet, 8¼ inches (which he had set in Ann Arbor), Owens was heavily favored to win. But, as sportswriter Ron Fimrite reports, "Under the baleful gaze of Adolf Hitler, he fouled on the first two jumps [and] had one chance remaining to qualify for the finals."

Owens said later, "I fought, I fought harder . . . but one cell at a time, panic crept into my body, taking me over." Owens was agonizing over what to do with his last jump when he was approached by one of his rivals, Germany's Luz Long. Although he was the very epitome of the pure Aryan youth a tall, blond, and blue-eyed athlete—Long was completely unsympathetic with the vainglorious theories of Nazi superiority. While the German officials watched, Long blithely befriended Owens.

"What's eating you?" he asked his African-American opponent. "You should be able to qualify with your eyes closed." Knowing that the qualifying distance was only 23 feet, 5½ inches, Long deftly recommended that Owens simply mark a spot a few inches before the wooden takeoff board and jump from there. Long even offered to mark the spot with his towel. Owens smiled and thanked him and easily qualified on his next jump. Later that day, after five jumps and at 25 feet, 10 inches, Owens was tied, ironically, with Long, who was staging the greatest performance of his own career. On his final jump, inspired by his new friend's gesture of brotherhood, Owens leapt 26 feet, 5½ inches—surpassing Long and shattering the Olympic record.

The first to congratulate him was Long, who lifted Owens's arm high in the sky. "I had gone farther than Luz," Owens wrote in his autobiography. "I had set a new Olympic record. I had jumped farther than any man on earth. Luz didn't let go of my arm. He lifted it up—as he had lifted me in a different way a few days before—and led me away from the pit and toward the crowd. 'Jazze Owens!' he shouted. 'Jazze Owens!' Some people in the crowd responded, 'Jazze Owens!' They were cheering me. But only I knew who they were really cheering. I lifted Luz Longs arm.

"'Luz Long!' I yelled at the top of my lungs. 'Luz Long! Luz Long!"'

Years later, Owens said, "In a more important way . . . he was the winner. He had done his best—and without him I never could have done my best. Luz truly showed the spirit of the Olympics . . . You can melt down all the medals and cups I have and they would be plating on the 24-carat friendship I felt for Long at that moment."

Owens was filmed on the victory stand, grinning underneath the olive leaf crown and showing a flash of true Olympic spirit as he said simply, "Thanks for the grand competition."

After the Olympics Owens quickly turned professional because, as he said at the time, "I had four gold medals, but you can't eat four gold medals." He spent the last years of life on the inspirational lecture circuit, a lifework that proved more rewarding than his world records, which have long since been broken.

"Grown men stop me on the street, and say, "Mr. Owens, I heard you talk fifteen years ago in Minneapolis. I'll never forget that speech." And I think to myself, that man probably has children of his own now. And maybe, maybe, he remembers a specific point I made. Maybe he is passing that point on to his own son just as I said it. And then I think—that's immortality. You are immortal if your ideas are being passed from a father to a son to his son and on and on and on."


Phil Cousineau is an award-winning documentary filmmaker and the author of seventeen books. This is an excerpt from his latest book, The Olympic Odyssey: Rekindling the True Spirit of the Great Games (Quest Books 2003).


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